Foraging for My Botanist Origins
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
My path to becoming a botanist and ecologist has been non-traditional, to say the least (more on that some other time). I was lucky to have a great undergraduate advisor who helped me to finally see myself as someone who could deserve the title of scientist and I fought against a lot of barriers to get where I am today- driven by a great love of flora and the support of many amazing people. Since those early days in my career I have constantly looked through my history to see where my interest in botany was truly initiated, secretly wanting to be like so many of my colleagues who carry touching stories of how plants inspired them in their youth. While I didn’t find that definitive moment where I “just knew” who I was to become, I did come to realize that my love of plants has been a part of me for a long time in various forms at different ages. I recalled making “potions” in the backyard out of flowers, sticks and leaves, learning about Cherokee plant medicine from tribe members who were very close family friends, reading books on foraging and wild-crafting, and growing an interest in the scientific validation of ethnobotanical plant uses. My first interests in plants all really centered on how humans could live off of the land with the proper botanical knowledge.
These days I spend a lot more time thinking about how plants respond to their environments and how we can protect/recover them from land disturbances and climate change, but I still have a strong desire to learn more about our human history with plants and how I can put more wild foods on my table. Besides being an amazing survival skill to have if you like to hike long distances, as I do, I don’t think there is another feeling quite like the one you get from the hunt, harvest, and preparation of wild plant foods. Foraging brings back some lost connection with the land that flickers on deep inside of us, waiting to be rekindled by our intellectual and adventurous pursuits.
Of course, foraging also has heavy implications for humans and the land that must be deeply respected. One slightly wrong identification can send us to the hospital or in a worst case scenario to lay forever among the roots of the forests. Additionally, when too many people forage without limit for food or medicine, plant species can quickly become threatened. Look up the cases of goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) and wild ramps (Allium tricoccum), for just two examples. Nonetheless, I think that with the proper respect of legal restrictions, the sharing of scientifically-backed information on the sustainability of plant populations, and the establishment of personal ethics for collection (e.g. don’t harvest more than 10-20% in an area or whatever the land management agency mandates) we can "Forage On" and reconnect with the land!
This summer I was lucky to find and taste thimbleberries (Rubus parviflous), wild raspberries (Rubus idaeus var. strigosus), and Saskatoon serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia) at the end of my field season in Grand Teton National Park. Serviceberries even grew directly in some of my field sites right alongside big mountain sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata ssp. vaseyana)! Another notable 2020 find was a nice population of American Hops (Humulus lupulus) growing creekside in a Wyoming State Park where I have been working on a short flora as a side project. I didn’t harvest any this year but it would be fun to try it out in a homebrew if I got permission! I love living in the Rocky Mountains because there are an incredible number of edible plants to learn about and I especially enjoy the high diversity of tasty berries. After this incredible year I have certainly resolved to spend more time learning about the very aspect of botany that first awoke my youthful love of plants. If you are also interested in learning more about Rocky Mountain foraging, I suggest the following "classic" books: "Edible & Medicinal Plants of West" by Gregory Tilford, "Edible and Medicinal Plants of the Rocky Mountains and Neighbouring Territories" by Terry Willard, Ph.D., "Handbook of Rocky Mountain Plants" by Ruth Ashton Nelson and Roger Williams, and "Edible Native Plants of the Rocky Mountains" by H.D. Harrington. Happy, safe, and legal hunting to you!
Disclaimer: Again, never, ever eat a wild plant without **expert** training on identification AND proper preparation for consumption. You also **need** to make sure that the land owner (government or private) allows collection of the species you desire. There are lots of aspects to consider for safe foraging. For example, many lichens are edible/thought to be medicinal but lichens readily absorb pollutants from the atmosphere and inky cap mushrooms (Coprinus comatus) are known to be edible- unless you drink alcohol within 5 days of consumption!
Cheers! – Häslein (aka FBK, aka Sienna)